The device, called a stable isotope mass spectrometer, is small enough to sit on a table and can be used to analyze atoms and molecules of almost any living thing.

A new $490,000 mass spectrometer, secured on a grant from the National Science Foundation, will enable Southern Oregon University professors and students to analyze the atomic structure of millennia-old tree rings, giving a glimpse into climate cycles of the region, past and present.

The device, called a stable isotope mass spectrometer, is small enough to sit on a table and can be used to analyze atoms and molecules of almost any living thing, said biology Prof. John Roden, a Coast Redwood tree ring specialist who, until now has been sending his samples off to University of California at Berkeley.

"It tells me the climate, the biology of the tree, what the tree was doing," said Roden, who has been doing research for seven years on another NSF grant. "It tells me the biology when it lived. My interest is in fog water utilization of the redwoods and how that varied with climate cycles. It's all recorded there from a thousand years ago."

The spectrometer can perform pollution research, bird migration, forensic science, food research and tell us what organisms are eating, Roden said, adding that other SOU departments may also find uses for it in such areas as forensics and aquatic sciences.

"It will definitely enhance our undergraduate education here," said Roden. "I can have classes run samples and the next step up is using it in capstone projects in their senior year."

The state-of-the-art instrument is normally found only in research universities or specific industrial research labs and will allow research opportunities normally available only to graduate students, he noted.

The device analyzes basic atoms, such as carbon, nitrogen and oxygen and learns by analyzing their stable isotopes, that is atoms with extra neutrons — ones that aren't radioactive and don't decay over time, he said.

"They're all around us," he notes. "In (ancient) snow, rain, fog, you can look at it and tell the difference between them. Until this, we never knew how important fog is for redwoods and how they use it as a water source. The wood is still there and it tells us."

Research with the spectrometer could increase knowledge of ancient climate cycles, helping in the understanding of climate change and the effect of el Nino cycles on it, he said, and will be explored with an NSF grant in the area of "Paleo-Perspectives in Climate Change."

"We need a long-term picture of what is normal. It can tell us if el Nino events are stable in how they go up and down," Roden said. "We only have 50 to 100 years of climate records and that's nothing in geological time."

The device can aid in pollution research, he said, be determining if nitrogen around us comes from power plants, pollution or other sources.

In addition to the spectrometer, the new grant will also pay for materials and staff time to implement protocols for use of the instrument.

"The stable isotope ratio mass spectrometer adds to our growing body of instrumentation available to students through our biology, chemistry, physics, and materials science programs," said Alissa Arp, dean of SOU's College of the Arts and Sciences. "Millions of dollars worth of cutting-edge equipment is incorporated into the curricula for science majors, giving our students excellent hands-on experiences."